Last week columnist Suzanne Moore wrote an article for the New Statesman in which she complained that women felt obliged to conform to the “ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual”. The trans community, many of them avid fans of her feminist journalism, were shocked and offended, and proceeded to tweet her about it in such droves that she eventually deleted her account. Enter Moore’s mate Julie Burchill, who stuck up for SM by writing an article in which she called the trans community, “a bunch of dicks in chick’s clothing” and “bed-wetters in bad wigs” who are “educated beyond all common sense and honesty”. In terms of diffusing a delicate situation, it was like if you got accused of sexism and Chris Brown stepped in to back you up.
It was kinda like the trans people’s version of when Jan Moir wrote in the Mail that Stephen Gateley died because he was gay, except this was published in the Observer, Sunday sister paper to the Guardian, with which it shares a website and supposed bastion of enlightened liberalism. What the hell, guys?
Disgusted twitter users stuck it to the Observer by telling everyone how outraged they were and linking to the article so that more people could share in their indignation, while Guardian Media Group’s online ads department high fived. Eventually the article was removed from the website, only for the Telegraph to repost it in a brave statement about the fundamental right for newspapers to publish irresponsible claptrap if it will get them hits.
Having heard far too much on the subject from celebrity columnists, VICE showed up to a protest that was being held outside the offices of the Guardian and Observer. It was high time somebody gave a platform to those members of the trans community who felt Twitter was probably kind of a rubbish way of expressing themselves.
We arrived to find what Julie Burchill would call “a gaggle of transsexuals”, but I prefer to describe them as a group of protesters.
It was freezing so “keep warm, burn the Guardian!” was a popular chant. The people holding the “BASH BACK” banner chanted: “we’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us!” Bash Back was a short-lived group of militant queers in America – described by Bill O’Reilly as a “mob of gay terrorists” – who spent much of 2007-8 chanting “Fags hate God!” at members of the Westboro Baptist Church, making out in evangelical Churches and committing minor acts of vandalism against the cock-shaped tentacles of the state in the name of gender anarchy. They were a good group to reference.
When I satisfied myself that I wasn't going to miss out on any similar acts of vandalism if I went away, I decided to mosey off and pick the brains of some of the other demonstrators.
Julie Aston, 43, student.
VICE: Is there a certain irony that this article was published by the Observer, and not, say, The Mail?
Julie: Media discrimination against trans people goes back years. A lot of people are very upset. This is the tip of the iceberg. It seems that now that the gay community has rights, it's: “Let’s pick on the trans people.”
If this is just the tip of the iceberg, what was it about this particular iceberg tip that brought you out in protest?
I was just astounded that someone had the audacity to write something so hateful. I’ve been beaten up because of what I am. I’ve been continually assaulted for about 13 years and I just want the hate to stop. There’s no need for it. Like, “dicks in chick’s clothing” – I’m sorry, but 13 years ago I stopped being a guy, full time. I have no penis. Technically, am I a man? No, I’m not.
What's the big deal if someone writes something nasty in a newspaper?
What we’re worried about is that this will incite violence against us. Some bully boys will use it as their excuse and I’ll suffer another beating.
Alexander Stone, 28, Shop assistant.
VICE: Hi Alexander, what was your take on that article?
Alexander: It’s just filth. It’s a string of insults. There’s nothing else there. We’re people the same as anyone else. It would have been unsurprising if it was in the Mail because we expect that from them but the Guardian is supposed to be a little more open minded and intelligent.
How would you describe the Telegraph's decision to re-publish it?
Lisa Jones, 56, Engineer.
VICE: What do you reckon, Lisa?
Lisa: Twenty years ago I was banned from pubs for being trans. I took it to court and got a grand out of it, but I’m still banned. I’ve been attacked on the street, physically. There’s been a slight relaxation in attitude since then.
So things have got better?
Yeah, I can work now. I was hounded out of my job in 2000 for being trans, whereas now I’ve got employment.
Guardian employee, identity witheld.
VICE: What do you make of the protest against you?
Guardian employee: Hate speech should never be out there. Transgender people have a right to be talked about respectfully because hate speech gets engendered and puts ideas in people’s heads. It was an Observer piece, not a Guardian piece, by the way.
Yeah, yeah. Huge difference.
I agree with everyone, the words that Julie Burchill used were disgusting. We’re not all bastards. I’m only on work experience.
If, as a workie, you got given a dictaphone with an interview Julie Burchill had done and were told to transcribe it, would you do it?
I would do it, yeah.
Sarah Savage, 30, trans activist and Sophia, 38, journalist.
Sarah Savage: Bigger, more valid stories about how the medical profession has institutionalised transphobia are being ignored by mainstream publications [a story broken by the Guardian, ironically] caused a groundswell of people together for one cause.
We’ve got over 100 people here. It shows how much trans people care about how they’re represented in the media, how much offence the Observer has caused and how we’re not willing to let it wash over us any more.
Was the original Suzanne Moore article that offensive?
No. It was a throwaway comment made out of ignorance, not prejudice. Her actions that followed left a lot to be desired. But then Julie Burchill ramping it up afterwards was just provocation. It was disgusting.
What do you make of the accusations of bullying?
She bought it on herself. She could have backed down and apologised. She chose to fight fire with fire. There’s freedom of speech but this was hate speech. It crossed a line.
How about you, Sophia?
Sophia: I believe in free speech. I’ve written articles in defence of the Westboro Baptist Church even though I’m absolutely appalled by the crap that they come out with. They have the right to freedom of speech but people have the right to counter picket.
But she had a right to say it in the first place?
Yes, just as I have a right to call her vile for doing so. Freedom of speech is one of the most valuable rights we have. It’s the right to say: “I’m not going to take this shit.”
More gender bending: